India is unlocking its borders to tourists after 18 months
India has locked its borders to foreign tourists for a year and a half. Finally, they are opening back up, signaling a new phase of the pandemic for a country that’s suffered some of the worst effects of COVID-19.
Starting Friday, the Indian government will allow fully-vaccinated foreigners with tourist visas to enter the country on chartered flights; they can arrive on regular flights starting Nov. 15. It’s the first time India has welcomed foreign tourists since March 2020, when the Indian government imposed its initial COVID-19 lockdown. There are no restrictions on who can enter, so long as they are fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID with 72 hours of their flight.
Since its first lockdown, India has only allowed flights from 28 countries under an Air Bubble Pact that serves fliers with special circumstances, such as Indian nationals stranded overseas or foreign nationals holding medical visas.
India is dropping its border restrictions as the number of daily COVID infections drops below 20,000 from a peak of 400,000 and the country’s vaccination rate ticks up. So far, 70% of the country’s 950 million adults have received one vaccine dose; nearly 30% are fully vaccinated. Together, those trends have eased the pressure on India’s health care system and promised to boost the country’s flagging tourism and aviation industry. But health experts warn that a full reopening may be premature; cases aren’t low enough and vaccinations aren’t high enough to fully rule out a third wave of infections.
Risking a third wave
India has fully vaccinated about 27% of its adult population and is expected to administer its billionth dose in coming days. But the country will likely miss its target of inoculating its entire adult population by the end of the year; it’s more likely to reach that goal by March or April of 2022.
At the same time, 35% of India’s population is younger than 18 and currently ineligible for vaccines.
Unvaccinated Indians and those who are only partially vaccinated pose a risk on their own; adding tourists to the mix will only increase the chances of a third wave, says Amit Dutt, principal investigator and scientist at India’s Tata Memorial-ACTREC, a research institute in Mumbai.
“It gives me shudders to think about the dire consequences in India [considering] the post-vaccination wave in countries such as the U.S, Singapore, U.K. and others with close to 70% or higher vaccination,” says Dutt.
Indian health authorities too have warned people to maintain COVID protocols, especially during the religious festival season that started last month and will culminate with Diwali in November.
“Please watch your [movements during] October, November and December,” Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in India’s Ministry of Health, said in a message to the public during a press briefing on Thursday.
Even with the warnings of danger ahead, India’s economic outlook is brightening. Ratings agency Moody’s raised India’s sovereign credit rating to stable from negative on Oct. 5 due to faster-than-expected recovery across business sectors.
An economic outlook survey conducted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) predicted that the country’s GDP will improve to 9.1% in the financial year ending March 2022, compared to a negative growth of 7.3% in the previous fiscal.
But a surge in people’s movement during the festival season can again lead to a rise in COVID infections and upset the economic recovery, the industry body said last Thursday.
Average Indians, for their part, have signaled their readiness to move on from the pandemic that wreaked havoc on much of the country earlier this year. India’s daily COVID infection rate of 401,993 cases reached on May 1 during the country’s devastating second wave remains the world record for daily new cases.
Crowds of people have started gathering in marketplaces, and Indians have flouted government protocols like wearing masks in public. Millions are taking vacations in the country’s hilly regions and beach towns after being locked up at home for months.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s premier medical body, cautioned in a report on Oct. 5 that “revenge tourism” will trigger a third wave of COVID-19 if hill stations and tourist destinations don’t strictly enforce safety protocols.
The risk of transmission is increasing with the sudden influx of domestic tourists, since most of the country is not fully vaccinated, the ICMR said.
On the other hand, India’s tourism industry says reopening to foreign tourists is needed because the pandemic has cost millions of jobs and shuttered many small and medium hotels. Tourism contributes roughly 7% of India’s GDP.
“Nobody is under the illusion that business will bounce back in 24 hours, but at last we are beginning to see some light,” says Rajeev Kohli, joint managing director at Creative Travel and a member of the Tourism Committee of the Confederation of Indian Industry. “The economic consequence of stopping travel is severe,” he said.
Industry executives anticipate that foreign tourist arrivals will start picking up at the end of the year when commercial flights return in earnest.
The limited number of flights available in the air bubble arrangements have increased ticket prices to four times that of regular fares. Flight times vary from week to week, another inconvenience.
"I think to reopen travel to India at this moment is a little bit risky as the pandemic has not yet been controlled in about 50% of the country. As a travel agent, I think I should not expose [my] clients to travel to India."